Bay Rum Trees

Hiking briskly down the forest trail towards Reef Bay, I was hoping to reach the bay trees while there was still enough light to take some photos and then return before sunset. By then the shadows on the path could make the climb back uphill perilous rather than just exhausting.

On bright days the bay tree grove provides a welcome relief from the heat of the open trail. The high canopy of trees provides shade, and there is usually at least a trickle through the gut that waters the trees before running down towards the east end of Fish Bay. The cool, quiet air is scented by the bay oil, and who can resist reaching up to catch some low-hanging leaves and crushing them to release the spicy fragrance. If any mosquitoes come by, rubbing the oil on your skin should keep them away.

There isn’t much underbrush, and the smooth tree trunks seem to glow slightly in the shadowy forest. It is a place that seems timeless, removed from the noisy activity in other parts of the island, and the seascapes that generally define the visual experience of the place.

But why are these trees here? Are they remnants from a ruined plantation nearby, or just naturally enjoying this spot?

I have seen the bay trees on the loop trail across from Cinnamon Bay, and I know that bay oil production was an important industry on St. John at one time. In fact, when the islands were sold to the United States in 1917, it was the only significant commercial activity, and St. John’s trees were world-renowned for their excellent quality.  

You can see the remains of the still that was used to produce bay oil among the ruins near Cinnamon Bay. The bay rum factory operated there from 1903 up until the end of World War II. Those bay trees were cultivated by the Danish West India Plantation Company, which bought the land around Cinnamon Bay in 1903 and produced oil for bay rum manufacturers on St. Thomas. The bay oil was distilled from the leaves, mixed with rum from St. Croix, and distilled again, with spices added, to create the bay rum after shave lotion.

There were already bay trees on St. John when the Europeans first arrived, used by the earlier inhabitants to flavor their food and drinks. Only the Europeans called these trees (whose Latin name is Pimenta racemosa) other names, including wild cinnamon, or wild ‘caneel’, the Dutch word for cinnamon - and named some of the bays on St. John in a way that confuses people looking for cinnamon trees.

The cinnamon most of us are familiar with (Cinnamon zeylanicum), is a member of the laurel family, not the myrtle family like the bay trees, and comes from Asia, particularly the island of Sri Lanka off the coast of India, formerly the British colony of Ceylon.

To add to the confusion there is another tree called wild cinnamon (Canela winterana) that is native to the Virgin Islands, and its bark was also sometimes used similarly as a spice.    

Meanwhile, I learned that the bay leaves you cook with are not the same ones that are used to produce bay rum. The cooking ones are from the laurel family, and are generally used as a savory flavoring in Mediterranean cuisine.

Robert Nicholls, author of the great book Remarkable Big Trees in the US Virgin Islands, wrote an article about ‘Medicinal Trees of the US Virgin Islands and Neighboring Islands’ that outlines the folk-medicinal uses of ten local trees, including the bay rum tree. He reports that Virgin Islanders traditionally used bay leaves for digestive purposes, to quiet upset stomachs and as an appetite stimulant. Also, someone with a cold or fever might be treated by putting bay leaves over their body, or making a tea to get rid of the chills. Rubbing the leaves on your skin can relive pain and soothe irritations.      

For me the smell of the crushed bay leaves brings up childhood memories of my father in New York, freshly shaved and dressed in his suit, leaning down to kiss me on his way out in the morning. Bay rum was a very popular after shave lotion then, sold in all the best stores.

Actually, I began researching bay oil and bay rum production in connection with a project for the United Nations Development Program about sustainable livelihoods based on products made from indigenous plants and trees. From one of the case studies, I learned that on Dominica the members of an Essential Oils and Spices Cooperative are producing bay oil for use in perfumes and cosmetics. Dominica is currently the main producer of bay oil, with exports to the US, Europe and the UK.

I have also come across a number of recipes for making your own bay rum skin lotion at home by soaking bay leaves in alcohol. One calls for putting a couple of leaves in a large sealed jar for a few weeks in a dark cool place (but not in the refrigerator) with 4 ounces of vodka, 2 tablespoons of rum, some allspice, a broken up stick of cinnamon, and some orange peel zest.

It sounds like a good punch recipe, but they warn that the bay leaves will make the concoction toxic to drink. After a few weeks of steeping, you can strain off the liquid and slap it on your face, or wherever. I can’t wait to whip some up as presents for the debonair men in my life.